Several years ago I worked on a team that was transitioning GSK’s office from downtown Philadelphia to the Philly Navy Yard. For employees, the move meant leaving familiar routines and all of the conveniences of central Philadelphia. But the geographical relocation wasn’t even the biggest change GSK employees faced. The office environment itself had been completely redesigned. Closed doors and cubicles were replaced by open layouts, people were assigned “neighborhoods” rather than offices, and terms like lap jacks and quiet booths became commonplace. GSK, like many companies, had realized that, among other things, an agile workplace is key to fostering collaboration and innovation.

In our series opener we cited Steve Johnson’s assertion that the environs of the Enlightenment coffee houses served as necessary catalysts for the collision and evolution of ideas. Not surprisingly, as companies seek to bolster creativity throughout their organizations, they are moving towards similar formats. However, what we have learned through engaging with these organizations as they envision, design, and implement these new work environments is that to be successful, the process of creating and realizing these spaces requires the same collective creativity they ultimately seek to foster.

GSK’s new workspace was and is beautiful, brimming with inspiring design elements. And there is no doubt that the “cool factor” (think rooftop BBQs) helped people to accept the change. But you can have a super cool space—full of whiteboards, round tables and comfy chairs—without ever achieving the desired increase in collaboration and creativity. Humans are good at maintaining the norm and can quickly adapt the new workspace to the old ways of working. In other words, superficial change is easy – it looks shiny and new – but creating meaningful change is not. GSK understood the need to shift mindsets along with workspaces and tackled this challenge from the outset, becoming a “success story” other companies seek to emulate.

So what does a successful workplace transformation process look like? Based on our work with GSK and many organizations since, we believe it consists of four primary elements:

Alignment – Getting clear on the “why” is an important first step. What is the purpose and expected outcome? How do you want people to think and feel about the workspace?  It seems obvious, but getting all of the key players in one room and ensuring that everyone has the same understanding saves huge amounts of time, misinterpretation, and rework. When we say ALL of the key players, we mean project sponsors as well as the ongoing core project team (think design firm, Facilities, HR, IT, Business Areas).  Once you’ve everyone listening, clear, simple, consistent messaging from the start is key. Once the sponsors and core team are all on the same page, they can help to inform, excite, and guide employees in a consistent way. Alignment is not, however, a one-time activity. Planned check-in meetings with sponsors and the core team along the way enable everyone to operate more effectively.

Sample Alignment Activities

  • Kickoff meeting
  • Inspiring communications about the “why” and “what’s in it for me”
  • Regular check-in meetings

Engagement – Mind-shifts don’t happen overnight.  No group immediately adapts to novel, collaborative ways of working in completely new environments. It’s a process. Engaging employees from the early stages allows them to better understand the change and express their concerns and needs. Create a meaningful experience for them throughout the transition, engage in a dialog, listen. After all, a key focus of many workplace transformations is to increase engagement. Modeling the behaviors early in your change efforts is the best step towards living the behaviors in the future.

Sample Engagement Activities

  • Vision tradeshows to share the new design and new ways of working in a compelling way
  • Focus groups
  • Change network with representation from impacted stakeholders

Capability Building – One of the biggest barriers to change is a lack of knowledge, and thus a lack of confidence, in the new ways of working. Build the capabilities that are needed to be successful in the new agile environment before the move-in. Through pilot workspaces and collaborative learning sessions, you can teach people the skills they need while reinforcing the new behaviors desired – collaboration, creativity, productivity, even fun.  Along the way, you’ll answer questions that all of your team will be asking: How do I really use a whiteboard or Idea Paint wall to have more effective meetings? How do I use technology to have productive virtual meetings? How do I manage my work and retain important information without keeping files of paper? What are the rules of etiquette in open spaces?

Sample Capability Building Activities

  • Pilot workspace
  • Hard hat tours
  • Collaborative learning sessions

Activation – It’s move-in day. Providing appropriate arrival support is the key to making this a positive experience. Have trained staff on hand to assist with questions and resolve immediate issues. A pop-up “genius bar” (tech support station) can be an effective way to provide assistance with new technologies that are being used. Ensure that leadership is on board to be visible in the space and modeling the new work behaviors.

Sample Activation Activities

  • “Genius Bar”
  • Arrival support team
  • Insights board

We are still learning and adapting to the needs of today’s workforce, but there is great promise in creating agile and compelling work environments. Such spaces can serve as catalysts for the collision and evolution of ideas, while giving people renewed energy to drive business performance and innovation.